Updated on 02.14.08

Training Wheels: Why I’m Spending Less and Less Time Managing my Personal Finances

Trent Hamm

When I first went through my financial meltdown, I was almost obsessive about my various accounts. I checked my credit card and bank balances on a daily basis, kept careful notes on every penny I spent, and planned and plotted every single tiny expense. The giant budgets and debt snowballs and investing plans I created were amazing in their detail – I spent hours with Excel open, calculating my financial life and seeing the implications of every little move I might make.

Over time, though, something fascinating happened. I stopped checking my balances every day. I slowed down my use of Excel, often only opening it to answer some specific question I’d come up with or to model something for The Simple Dollar. I didn’t sweat every penny on every receipt any more.

In short, I began to trust myself. I had seen the results time and time again of my good financial behaviors – my account balances went up and my debts went down. Eventually, I began to trust these principles, and that trust led directly to a reduced need to keep running the numbers and micromanaging everything.

From my perspective, the transition was much like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. Back in the “bad old days” of crazy spending, I was like a child who couldn’t balance a bicycle at all. Eventually, I realized what I needed to do, but I needed some help learning the right balance – the training wheels. Then, after some practice, I took the training wheels off – I knew intuitively what behaviors I needed to use to keep my balance and the constant reinforcement wasn’t really worth the time any more.

I’m not saying that the “training wheels” of budgeting and careful planning are wastes of time – they’re not. The experience of carefully tracking my balances and creating various debt snowball models brought me a deep understanding of what the “good” and “bad” life behaviors are.

For me, budgeting tools were more useful in teaching me good behaviors than revealing any deep financial truths. I already knew I was in a lot of debt and wasn’t in a very good financial shape. The planning and daily effort mostly just translated my day to day lifestyle into a bigger scope. It showed me that making wise shopping decisions resulted in more money in my checking account at the end of the month, and that many months of this behavior resulted in breathing room if bad things happened.

I encourage everyone who is in debt trouble to gather as much data as they can and pay attention to everything very carefully at first. Riding the bicycle of financial freedom can be hard and if you find yourself continually crashing, it’s worthwhile to strap on the training wheels for a while.

But if you find yourself continually spending far less than you earn and budgeting begins to feel like a less effective use of your time, don’t be afraid to back off a bit and unhook those training wheels. Once you’ve really incorporated the principles that work for you into your life, you’ll find that you can go along just fine without those supports, riding into your future with the wind at your back.

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  1. Mrs. Micah says:

    For the most part, I did just fine without a budget in college. I knew what I had, knew my goals, and I don’t like to spend anyway.

    Being married, having a tighter money situation (more money but more expenses), having debt to pay off (since I didn’t have any debt in college) I’ve found myself having to put those training wheels back on. I hope that eventually I’ll be able to get to this point as well.

  2. Lurker Carl says:

    Excellent analogy! As salaries and expenses change, you’ll become obsessed with the budget at various times in the future. It will be a different experience since you’ll be fine tuning instead of starting from scratch. Less like training wheels, more like knee pads.

  3. Financial discipline takes introspection, examination, and practice. Changing your behavior, about money or anything else, takes awareness of the issues first. By closely examining your old habits, deciding on new habits, and implementing them, change is possible. To try it another way is to set yourself up for short-term success, then failure.

  4. Laura says:

    It’s easier to keep a budget now because of the habits we formed. The first few months of marriage I was watching the accounts like a hawk to make sure everything went smoothly.

  5. Michael says:

    I submit the subtitle of this post should have been the entire title.

  6. Ryan S says:

    Hey there! I read here regularly and also happen to be a Christian pastor in training. The Christian tradition also has a framework for this phenomenon: the development of virtue.

    What your describing is the development of temperance, one of the cardinal virtues (as the ancients and medievals would call it).

    With all virtues, there are too extremes to be avoided. In your case the extremes were recklessness and then compulsion. The virtue in the middle that leads to wholeness and deep joy is moderation, or temperance.

    “All things in moderation.”

  7. Tyler says:

    An excellent analogy. The forces of habit are strong to break – both good and bad.
    When we form good habits, we are successful.
    It fits hand in hand with my favorite quote from Dividend Money.com –
    “Practice makes perfect and perfect makes money”

  8. I am an information addict and I can’t break out of the habit of constantly checking and balancing my accounts and looking at where I stand on everything on a daily basis or even more frequently. I’ve done this both during times of excess, as well during times of famine. The only time I don’t check up on my finances on a daily basis is when I’m on vacation – where doing so costs money (due to internet cafe charges)!!

  9. JT says:

    I agree totally…when I first started tracking my spending, it showed me areas where I was just spending without thinking. That morning Starbucks was only a couple of bucks, after all. But when you see how all your little habits are adding up to big bills each month, you start to really think about where you want to spend your money and areas to watch closely.

    I know from the exercise I went through what areas I still have to watch closely – food (esp dining out) and fun stuff. I still spend money on eating and on fun, of course…now I just keep my monthly budget for these two areas in mind. If I’m getting close to spending my budget and its mid-month…I know I need to slow down for the rest of the month.

  10. My Two Cents says:

    I find that I myself am doing the same. I used to be obsessed with my finances and how much I had in the bank, etc. It was to the point that I was checking my balances every day even when I know no purchases were made or deposits made either.

    Training wheels, indeed, and I’m glad to say that from the few months of training I had of making sure I didn’t spend more than I made, I’ve kept my spending under strict control.

  11. reulte says:

    I like checking my balances daily.

    But so often it isn’t to ‘see where I’m at’ but rather to contemplate how far I’ve come.

  12. Ashleigh says:

    Very interesting read. Makes me understand why I’ve been constantly checking my balances, account and tracking every penny since July when I started getting serious about paying off my debt.

    I hope to get where you are one day, thanks for the encouragement.

  13. Kathryn says:

    It’s worth while, though, to check back in regularly (if less often) to make sure you are still on track. It possible to drift a little over time if you aren’t watching carefully.

  14. Sir
    I was almost obsessive
    This is your psychological sickness and nothing to do with the money but I feel sad. This is the wallet. Try carrying the envelope. What happens is if you have this then you if you lose the envelope you do not feel depressed. The envelope is cheaper but the wallet is expensive. I am sure you will feel better.
    I thank you
    Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    East Africa

  15. Emily says:

    I understand the concept of “moving on” in your financial journey and have found this principal to be true for me as well. However, I think it is a good idea to check certain balances daily just to insure there are no unauthorized withdrawals, such as in the case of identity theft. Early detection of misuse of one’s credit and debit cards could be a lifesaver! I check my checking balance morning and night and the credit card accounts periodically, just-in-case. For me, this is not an obsessive thing, just a precaution and a gathering of information which keeps me on top of what is, and isn’t, going on, and as well, serves as a reminder that I need to be frugal and diligent with my goals and spending/saving plan on an ongoing basis. I’ve had my credit card number stolen and it was a rude awakening to find someone else’s charges on my bill when it arrived (for pizza and cable TV!!!).

  16. I check my balances every few days. Our problem is more about what we have coming in. Managing the financial and tax implications of my freelance work, plus his staff job, plus his side freelance work was becoming a burden and causing a lot of stress. So we pay a small monthly fee to work with a virtual bookkeeper who is able to keep everything on track, making it 1,000x easier during tax time and just day to day.

    Now I can download their spreadsheets for us and fully understand what’s going on. I know a lot of people can do this sort of thing on their own with a bookkeeper at all, I’m just pointing out sometimes people need help whether they’re in debt, saving, or otherwise.


  17. MoneyMusing says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I followed the same route and came to the same realization of tracking expenses.

    Essential at the beginning, a general idea once you’re financially stable.

  18. Matt says:

    As you do anything more you end up building confidence and experience. With both of those you can continue to improve. Confidence levels can be completely shot if you’re deep in the debt hole.

  19. NoDebtPlan says:

    I check mine every couple of days ass well. Some would call it obsessive, some would call it relaxed. I guess it depends on your perspective. :)

  20. Thunderhardt says:

    I check my accounts every day. I just began to budget 2 years ago. What a difference it has made. I only wish I had taken control of my spending at a much earlier ag, but it is never to late to start. I am about to retire, wich was not on my mind in my earlier years. (Trent, Where were you. (LOL). Learned so much here. Trying to spread the word to younger people. Thank you so much for your advice. I would like to thank all the people for thier postings, I have also learned from so many of them. Thank You!!!!

  21. K12Linux says:

    The hardest part of budgeting for me has been (and to an extent, continues to be) making sure I have every significant expense included in the budget. At first I’d do up a budget covering 8-12 months and say, “Wow, it won’t be hard to start building some savings.” Then something would come up like car maintenance (perhaps unplanned) or refilling the fuel tank for our furnace.

    I found that for my budget had to be come a constant work in progress. As we spend money or got bills I have to figure out where it fits into my budget and, if it doesn’t, figure out where to add it so it’s not a surprise next time.

    Now we have our spending habits under control. Unfortunately we are at the point of trying to keep it at $0 or above so it still takes a close eye on the budget. (“When can I pay this bill without pushing our checking account into the red?”)

    The most valuable thing having an increasingly accurate budget has done for me at this point is help me plan for infrequent expenses. Now I can work out how much to save from each check so I can pay that big bill coming in six months.

    I think things would be completely different if I knew I had a big enough emergency fund to cushion the impact of an unexpected expense.

    I’m looking forward to the day when I have enough breathing room and enough positive cash-flow that I don’t have to refer to “the budget” every payday or even more often.

  22. lintacious says:

    I totally agree! After keeping my food bill under a certain amount for months now, I don’t even think about it when I go to the grocery store now. I just buy what is on sale and don’t buy what I know will go to waste and I rarely go over budget. So diligently keeping track of this spending isn’t as important as it used to be.

    This same mentality can be used for anything once you get into the habit of. I used to jot down every day that I ran to make sure that I ran at least three times a week. But now I’m running four times a week and it’s become so routine that tracking it would be silly.

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